”The best things in life are free, But you can give them to the birds and bees, I want money, That’s what I want, That’s what I want.” In 1959, these words were written by Barrett Strong in a song called ”Money (That’s What I Want).” The song was later made famous throughout the United States and the UK when The Beatles covered it in 1963.
One year later, The Beatles again topped the charts with the hit song, ”Can’t Buy Me Love.” When asked about the meaning of the lyrics, Paul McCartney said, ”The idea behind it was that all these material possessions are all very well, but they won’t buy me what I really want.” However, when reflecting on the perks that money and fame had brought him, he was to later comment: ”It should have been ‘Can Buy Me Love.’ ”
Paul McCartney and The Beatles are not the only ones who have contradictory views around the age-old question, ”Can money buy happiness?” Put another way, ”Does money, or lack thereof, impact how happy we are?” Psychologists, philosophers and ordinary folks have debated this question for years.
In the last decade, the field of psychology took a dramatic turn from only looking at mental illness, to exploring what makes people feel fulfilled, engaged and happy. This Positive Psychology Movement has produced an expansive amount of researchers who are looking at things such as happiness, positive emotions, optimism and healthy character traits. At some point, every one of these top researchers explored the effects of money on happiness and positive emotions.
What we are finding out is that happiness is the ultimate currency. Not only do happy people enjoy life more and have more fun, but they also practice positive lifestyle habits and have stronger immune systems. When faced with illness, happier and more optimistic individuals have been shown to be more proactive in their medical care, more compliant with treatment and medication, have quicker recoveries and show better health outcomes. So, if we want to be healthier and happier, it’s worth figuring out where money comes into play.
When we talk about happiness, we need to look at it from two separate aspects–life satisfaction as a whole vs. moment-to-moment moods. I can be satisfied with my overall life, yet still have moments when I am not happy. Vice versa, some folks can be dissatisfied with their current circumstances and wish for change, but still have many moments of joy throughout the day. Interestingly, money affects our feelings about both aspects of happiness.
Income is often thought to be a good measure of happiness and well-being. However, when researched, it was found to be less significant than predicted. Although individuals with higher income levels report overall satisfaction with their lives, they often enjoy themselves less on a daily basis and experience greater moments of stress than those with lower incomes.
When does income make a significant difference in our level of happiness? If we struggle to afford good housing, food, or education, both life satisfaction and mood plummets. Edward Diener, a premier researcher in the field of Positive Psychology, found that once a person’s basic needs are met, additional income does little to raise his or her sense of satisfaction with life. Many other cross-cultural and longitudinal studies have also shown a very low correlation between material wealth and happiness, except in cases of extreme poverty where people were deprived of basic needs.
So, how much income is needed to be comfortable and meet our basic needs? A study from Princeton University found that a larger paycheck does lead to a happier life-but only to a certain point. According to the study, people who earned greater than $75,000 annually had no greater happiness.
Does this mean we should all be happy when we reach an income of $75,000 and not strive to make more than that? Does it mean that money doesn’t afford many pleasures and gratifying experiences that are not available to those of lesser means? Absolutely not.
What really affects our happiness more than how much we make is our attitude toward money and the way that we handle it. When we hold fast to the belief that money directly determines happiness, life becomes a constant pursuit of accumulating ”more”. So, when is enough, enough? Martin Seligman, father of the Positive Psychology Movement and author of Authentic Happiness, states:
”Another barrier to raising your level of happiness is the ‘hedontic treadmill,’ which causes you to rapidly and inevitably adapt to good things by taking them for granted. As you accumulate more material possessions and accomplishments, your expectations rise. The deeds and things you worked so hard for no longer make you happy; you need to get something even better to boost your level of happiness.”
Sonja Lyubomisrsky, author of The How of Happiness, concurs:
”…having money raises our aspirations about the happiness that we expect in our daily lives, and these raised aspirations can be toxic. Unfortunately, raised aspirations don’t only lead us to take things for granted and impair our savoring abilities. They steer us to consume too much, tax the planet’s resources, overspend and under save, go into debt, gamble, live beyond our means, and purchase mortgages that we can’t afford.”
On one hand, we can interpret the above by concurring with the age-old expression, ”Money is the route of all evil.” On the other hand, there are plenty who agree whole-heartedly with the sentiment, ”Anyone who says money can’t buy happiness hasn’t experienced having enough to do so.”
So how can you develop the right attitude toward money and keep it in a healthy place in relation to your happiness level? Here are some tips:
Cover Your Needs
If you are struggling to meet your basic needs, do all that you can to foster a more secure future. Get the help of professionals, whether it’s with career planning, financial planning or government assistance. There are many no-fee or low-fee agencies who can offer you guidance.
Save for the Future
Determine the amount of savings that would allow you to feel a sense of security toward handling emergencies and your future. Develop a savings plan that works for you, and be consistent.
Focus on building stronger relationships with your loved ones. Research has shown the happiest individuals have the strongest commitment and connection to family and friends. Money doesn’t guarantee happiness, but good relationships most certainly do!
Don’t Make Comparisons
Savor the pleasures of your spending without comparing yourself to others. Comparison almost always leads to feelings of inadequacy, and often for no good reason. Bask in the joy of your new car without coveting your neighbor’s more expensive one. Appreciate your long weekend vacation instead of wishing for an around-the-world cruise.
Create Experiences and Accumulate Memories
Spend your energy on having experiences that will make memories instead of having stuff. Many of life’s greatest pleasures cost very little money—and can even be free! Socializing, spending time in nature, embarking on work and/or hobbies that are meaningful, volunteering, and listening to music are some of the many activities that people report bring them the greatest joy.
Additionally, here are some examples of experiences that are generally worth spending money on due to the enhancements they can bring to your life:
- Experiences that help us to grow and develop as individuals, such as education, lessons and entrepreneurial pursuits.
- Small pleasures, such as a massage or a private Pilates lesson, rather than an extravagant purchase.
- Gifts for others, rather than for ourselves.
- Donations to charities that have a personal connection to us.
- Purchases that have been worked and saved for.
Do I think that money can buy me happiness? No, but it can sure bring enjoyment to my world. I will continue to believe that my happiness is not dependent on money. Although important, if I had to make do with less, I could simplify my life, and I would still be happy. I am surrounded by family and friends I love and enjoy, and do work I find amazingly meaningful, purposeful and rewarding. I will continue to work hard and enjoy the fruits of my labor, and hopefully never, ever take all that I have for granted. I hope you will do the same.
Lyubomirsky, Sonja. The How of Happiness (New York: Penguin Books, 2007).
Miles, Barry. Paul McCartney: Many Years from Now (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1997).
Princeton University. ”Link between income and happiness is mainly an illusion,” accessed July 2012. www.princeton.edu.
Scientific American. ”Can Money Buy Happiness?”, accessed July 2012. www.scientificamerican.com.
Seligman, Martin. Authentic Happiness (New York: Free Press, 2002).
Time Magazine. ”Do We Need $75,000 a Year to Be Happy?”, accessed July 2012. www.time.com.
Time Magazine. ”The New Science of Happiness,” accessed July 2012. www.time.com.